All eyes on Neymar in Club World Cup semi-final
Santos make their highly anticipated debut at the Club World Cup on Wednesday when they face plucky Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol, but all the focus is on one man: Neymar.
The Brazilians will be relying on the highly talented 19-year-old forward to shoot them to a probable final showdown with Barcelona, while Kashiwa's Brazilian boss, a former Santos player and coach, must try to stop him.
Arguably the most high-profile name after Lionel Messi at the intercontinental championship in Japan, Neymar, who has been linked with a big-money move to Europe, said he wanted to write his name in Santos folklore.
"I'm very happy to have this opportunity to play at the Club World Cup and very happy to have the chance to be a new name in the history of Santos. It's an honour for me," he said.
The slight Neymar said that he was flattered to be talked about in the same breath as Messi, the brilliant Argentine who like his Barcelona side is widely acknowledged to be the best in the world.
Santos coach Muricy Ramalho said Neymar should stay and develop his game in Brazil until after the World Cup there in 2014, and said that he was not concerned about the hype surrounding his teenage talisman.
"He's a young player but he's got a lot of experience in football, he's a person who's responsible and he's prepared to take responsibility," said Ramalho on the eve of the tie with Kashiwa and their Brazilian coach Nelsinho.
"Though Neymar's under huge pressure, it doesn't have a negative impact. He's used to being under pressure."
The European champions Barcelona take on Al Sadd of Qatar in the other semi, on Thursday, in a match they will be fully expected to win.
There is similar pressure on Santos back home in Brazil, where the Club World Cup is regarded as a major trophy. Ramalho said he believed he was under even more scrutiny than Barca boss Pep Guardiola.
The 61-year-old Nelsinho, whose spell as coach has seen Kashiwa leap from second-division obscurity to the J-League championship in just two seasons, said Neymar had the potential to be the best player in the world.
"He's an outstanding player with huge, huge potential," he said. "Of course we will have to be very cautious not only of him, but of the whole Santos team."
Nelsinho rolled off the likes of striker Borges, who scored a prolific 23 goals in 29 games in Brazil in 2011, and Ganso, the subtle foil to Neymar who has also been mooted for a big-money move to Europe.
Nelsinho, who has been hailed in the Japanese press for his "Nelsinho magic" after steering the side from Chiba, near Tokyo, to the most successful spell in its history, said it was probably the biggest game of his long career.
"The match is extremely important for my career. Barcelona and Santos are favourites (to win the tournament), but we have the opportunity to play them (Santos), so for any professional this is an extremely big chance," he said.
"It might be the most important in my career," he added, saying that he would not let fond memories of his time at the Brazilian giants distract him.
"I've a great gratitude to Santos but I'm not bringing those emotions to the game," said Nelsinho, who is firm friends with Ramalho from their playing days.
Kashiwa, who grabbed the last berth at the tournament as champions of the host league, defeated Auckland City and then survived a nail-biting penalty shoot-out against the Mexicans Monterrey to reach the last four.
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